Inside Islam's Druggy Underworld

By Maer Roshan 07/19/11

In many Arab nations, drugs or alcohol are punishable by death. But as Islamic expert Joseph Braude reports in a revealing interview, decades of corruption and repression have created a wave of addiction that's sweeping the region's most hard-line regimes.

Joseph Braude explores the dark places of Islam.
Photo by Phyllis Rose

Journalist Joseph Braude has a new book out this month, The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. It’s a true story and a fast-paced murder mystery based on nearly half a year which he spent embedded with the Moroccan police in Casablanca. He watched police bust drug gangs and crack homicide cases. Along the way, he also learned about the nexus of international drug trafficking, social disaffection, and addiction in North Africa and the Middle East, a topic he has been following for more than ten years. He tells The Fix all about it.

You've traveled across a wide number of Islamic countries during your career. How do attitudes and policies about drugs and addiction vary across North Africa and the Middle East?

They range from denial, moral denunciation, and the death penalty on one end to clinical treatment and rehabilitation programs on the other. In every Arab country and Iran you find elements of both extremes – as well as some encouraging signs of change that defy stereotypes about the Muslim world. Fundementalist countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where religion dominates the public sphere are at a more junior stage in acknowledging the problem of addiction, while more secular countries like Lebanon and Bahrain are pursuing more enlightened forms of treatment. That said, in conservative Saudi Arabia I went for a spin one night with a cleric who takes addicts off the streets and gives them shelter in his mosque – no fire and brimstone, just TLC. And in more Lebanon, I interviewed a doctor who thinks the best treatment for addict is a long stint in prison and 50 lashes with a whip. Both these guys are probably outliers, though.

Islamic nations seem to be acknowledging the drug problem much more than they used to. Why do you think that is?

Because they can no longer get away with deceit. For more than a decade now, the region’s “closed societies” have been opening up thanks to satellite television and the Internet. States like Saudi Arabia have lost their stranglehold on information; they can only negotiate with society over the public discussion. The debilitating effects of addiction across North Africa and the Middle East are widely acknowledged now, and the debate is over how to address the problem.  eliable ata on addiction in Muslim countries is rare, but studies by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that substance abuse is much more prevalent in North Africa and the Middle East than it is in other parts of the developing world. Theories as to why this might be so include the devastating psychological effects of social repression, political upheaval, and military occupation. And in a region where the vast majority of the population is under the age of 30, every variety of youth culture is on display – from sacred to profane, from the dynamic and the innovative to utterly self-destructive.

Let’s start with Iran, which is reportedly suffering from a huge heroin problem, thanks to its proximity to Afghanistan. Some experts estimate that 10% of the country's  youth are addicted, but the government's approach to the problem has been incredibly inconsistent.  On the one hand, the mullahs have executed hundreds of people they claimed were drug users and traffickers, though human rights groups claim that many of the victims were actually democracy activists. On the other hand, there are more N.A meetings in Iran per-capita than in any other country in the world.  In fact, Ahmadinejad just held a massive public meeting to salute thousands of “rehabilitated” addicts. What’s going on there?

Iranian society includes many liberals and progressives, but they are ruled by a retrograde, reactionary regime. The government presents itself to the world as a bulwark against international drug trafficking, but has had little to say about the problem of addiction within its borders. When I lived in Tehran as a student in 1998, I watched several locally produced action movies about Iranian security services fighting Afghani drug lords – like “cowboys and Indians” – that seemed to advance the take-no-prisoners message of the state on drugs. But I also noticed that artists, intellectuals, and teachers had to find roundabout ways to explore the tragedy of addiction inside the country. (One was a wordless exhibit of watercolor paintings in a modern art museum, for example.) Now theregime is beginning to acknowledge that addiction in Iran is widespread, but influential clerics still tend to blame foreigners – Jews, Americans, and so on –for allegedly conspiring to cause the problem. Meanwhile, there are also elites in Iran, close to the regime, who are profiting from the drug trade themselves.

And yet they’re also executing drug traffickers?

Scores of alleged drug traffickers, including small-timers, have indeed been executed.

Is heroin the biggest problem in the region? I know that it is in Iran.

You can find everything in Iran if you’re wealthy enough, but what’s cheapest, thanks to massive production in nearby Afghanistan, is heroin. The locally available substance is always the cheapest: in Morocco, one of the largest producers of cannabis reason on earth, everyone doess Hashish. In Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti, the local crop is Khat, an amphetamine-like stimulant. But if you have the wherewithal and the cash, you can pick up every sort of drug anywhere in the world.

A recent UN study claimed that Iranians consume more heroin per capita than any country in the world. Why do you think are addiction rates there are so high?

Of course I can't give you a definitive answer. Perhaps where an extremist religious ideology is being shoved down people’s throats, narcotic serve in part as a pressure valve or a coping mechanism for a repressed society.

Has the heroin scene in Tehran spawned an attendant drug culture?

In Tehran there’s Park-e Mellat, a beautiful sprawling national park with a statue of Rumi and speakers all over playing classical Persian music. I remember sections of the park where the “guardians of public virtue” – religious police – generally did not go. You’d find young people holding hands and making out, and you’d also find people purveying and consuming alcohol and narcotics. Locals told me that the regime had an unofficial policy of granting a modest space for young people to experience their “vices.”

Who’s charged with arresting drug users? Regular police or Islamic vice police?

Both, in fact. There are religious police in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Hizbullah-controlled sections of Beirut. There are also movements to establish religious police in other countries –some Sunni Islamist members of parliament in Bahrain, for example, have been pressing for it – but liberals in those countries are fighting back.

Are prescription pills like painkillers or downers as popular in the Arab world as they are here and in Europe?

Yes.More and more so.  Especially in the Gulf.

Let's talk about Morocco, where your book is set. It's traditionally been a lot less fundementalist than countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.  What’s the drug situation like there?

It’s one of the largest producers of cannabis resin on earth – a $13 billion industry that has been estimated to employ 760,000 Moroccans, mainly in the northern Rif mountains. As to domestic consumption, Hashish smoking is widespread, both among Moroccans and among visitors to the country from the West. Morocco was a hub of drug tourism in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It still is, thoughperhaps a little less so. There was a major conservative shift in the ‘80s: when the Arab world largely united in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia spread Islamist propaganda across the region. While ostensibly recruiting young men to fight in Afghanistan, even from as far away as Morocco, the Saudi-backed “Wahhabi” ideology also changed the religious andcultural fabric of Arab societies. Drug tourism was understandably stigmatized, and police crackdowns followed.

Wahhabism is a fundamentalist version of Islam?

It is a militant form of religious Puritanism. It dates back to the 18th-century in the Arabian peninsula, when George Washington was president.  It would probably be an obscure curiosity in the Muslim world today if not for the advent of oil in Arabia, which gave Saudis the resources to export their ideology all over the region, and eventually as far out as Asia and North America.

Into the early 2000s, many mosques in Morocco were influenced by prostelytizing Wahhabists. But in 2003, a series of Al-Qaeda-style suicide bombings rocked Casablanca, and the government resolved to reclaim Islam from the extremists. Among other strategies, the king tapped the rich Moroccan tradition of Sufism – the mystical strand of Islam – to rival the hardliners. Now the conservative trend is ebbing as a result, a shift that coincides with the globalization of Moroccan culture. Meanwhile, Europeans are buying beautiful old houses in Marrakesh and Tangier and turning pockets of Morocco into almost retirement communities. It's become the the Boca Raton of France.

Along with drugs as well?

Drugs have always beenRecreational consumption of drugs among Moroccan elites is rising. Meanwhile, addiction in the shantytowns and among the Moroccan underclass is a growing problem with its own dynamic.

The Saudis are a really confusing bunch. In public, the Saudi government funds and exports a fundamentalist form of Islam. But as any party boy in New York can attest, wealthy Saudis are the most  decadent, liquored-up, drugged-out people in the world. 

Like in Iran, the government in Saudi Arabia imposes repressive religious mores on the population while urban youth in particular are increasingly exposed to freer, more open societies. Some experience other parts of the world by going abroad to study there, while others learn through satellite television and the Internet. High rates of drug and alcohol consumption are commonly ascribed to the pressures of living in a repressive environment coupled with the widespread availability of these illegal substances.

I assume they regard alcoholism much differently than drug addiction.

Thee's a popular stereotype that Saudis are among the biggest drinkers in the entire Middlke East. Of course, there's no serious research to back that up. But I don't doubt it.

And yet, the Saudis also have the most stringent laws against alcohol.

Forbidden fruit. I did a lot of traveling in Saudi Arabia. In the process I got to know a bunch of wealthy families in Riyadh, Jeddah, and northern towns like Umm al-Jamajim and Hafr al-Batin, a town near near the Iraqi border. I came across tons of  moonshine brewed in bathtubs and a whole lot of imported whiskey. Some of the homebrewed stuff is called nabidh, an old Arabic word that originally referred to date wine, but to me it didn’t taste much like dates!

Where do you go to get a Cosmo in Riyadh?

Generally, alcohol is limited to the “compounds” – these giant gated communities where Westerners live. The compounds have a different set of rules: Westerners are permitted to enjoy their own culture, including the consumption of alcohol, within the compound walls. If you’re a young Saudi looking for a “good time,”  you need to find a western friend.

Another source of alcohol is the tiny neighboring kingdom of Bahrain. People say that Bahrain is “the lungs of Saudi Arabia.” Lots of Saudis who are tired of their own repressive culture go there when they need a breath of fresh air. From the Saudi Eastern Province, you can drive to Bahrain and go to the cinema, drink in public, go to night clubs, and so on.

You mentioned that there are widespread conspiracy theories that Western intelligence is engaged in a in the Muslim world. Do you think there's any truth to that claim?

Not when it comes to alcohol, but it's true in the case of cigarettes. But the real  culprit is not Western governments, but multinational tobacco companies. A few years ago I wrote a piece for The New Republic that created a real stir in many Arab countries. THere was a big lawsuits against tobacco companies in the United States that forced them to release a load of confidential documents. I spent a couple of weeks poring over them. They showed that the cigarette industry was brazenly conspiring to foment addiction in the Arab world – not unlike their pernicious work in other parts of the world. Some companies made a deliberate effort to co-opt Muslim clerics to be more permissive toward cigarettes. This was at a time when most Saudi clerics were telling people that cigarettes were a serious health hazard and probably a sin..

How did they manage that?

They did it by forming a consortium called META, the Middle East Tobacco Association. It was funded by a group of competitng tobacco companies that agreed to collaborate on an effort to hook Arabs on nicotine. Remember how I told you that Bahrain is the lungs of Saudi Arabia? That is a particularly apt metaphor when you’re talking about cigarettes. The lobbyists who were behind the Middle East Tobacco Association understood that Bahrain, which has always served as a liberal cultural outlet for the people of Saudi Arabia, could also serve as a cultural trendsetter for Saudi Arabia's youth. Saudi kids tend to distrust their own clerics when it comes to issues of popular culture and personal recreation. So META endowed an Islamic institution in Bahrain, “encouraging” its clerics to rule that cigarettes are not against the tenets of Islam.

Their plan—basically to buy religious authority to support smoking—is all clearly spelled out in the documents. There is lots of correspondence among META personnel in which the excitedly point out that by buing influence in Bahrain they can influence the consumer culture of Saudi Arabia.

Are Saudi clerics opposed to smoking?

Many were, though many have been silent on this subject. Researchers on cigarette consumption in the Middle East believe that smoking is slightly less prevalent in Saudi Arabia than in other Arab countries. Last year the Saudi government banned smoking in airports, and there is a movement to extend the ban to other public spaces.

What are the treatment options for addicts and alcoholics in the region? Are there any rehabs or clinical treatments available for Arab citizens?

Oddly, some of the poorer countries in the region, like Jordan and Morocco, happen to have some of the better facilities for treatment and rehabilitation, thanks in part to international Non Governmental Organizations who've teamed up with local government and health services to address the problem. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has operations in Egypt, the Levant, and North Africa that aim to share “best practices” and partner with with local medical facilities. You might think that because of their wealth the Gulf states would have state-of-the-art treatment and rehabilitation programs. Unfortunately, most Arab nations ignore the problem. Migrant workers constitute the majority of the population in oil-rich countries such as the UAE. IF they're caught with drugs the only “treatment” they receive is deportation to their countries of origin. A notable exception is Kuwait, where a bunch of general hospitals have developed a homegrown multidisciplinary approach to addiction treatment involving psychologists, MDs, employment counselors, and even a few Muslim clerics.

Do Islamic nations view addiction strictly as a moral failure or as a medical problem, as it is increasingly seen in the West?

Most Arab nation still view drug abuse in strictly moralistic terms – a scourge caused by loosening of Islamic mores and the negative influence of the West. There are no shows like Intervention on Saudi T.V. 

After the uprisings in Libya, Muammar Quadaffi  claimed that the rebels in his country were drug addicts who were being supplied by  "foreign elements."

Yes. When the Libyan uprising began and Quadaffi delivered that delusional diatribe against his own population, he claimed that the thousands of protesters who took to the streets were drugged-out deviants who were being fed by by Tunisians and Egyptians.

Why did he single out those particular countries?

After the breathtaking uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, he was trying reclaim the revolutionary mantle he once held in the region. “I'm the real revolutionary,” he said. THese other revolutions are fakes—‘drug induced’ coupds sponsored by Western governments. TO this day, he makes these long televised speeches claiming that Americans and Israelis and duplicitous Arabs are supplying Libya's youth with drugs to trick and confuse them. The idea of pumping revolutionaries with pot and heroin is a sound bit counterintuitive.  I imagine that  think junkie revolutionaries would prefer to kick back at home with their friends rather than take to the streets. But for Gaddafi drugs are a tool used by hostile forces to make people vulnerable to suggestion. He truly believes that that Libyan rebels are getting on drugs and taking orders from seditious foreigners.

Clearly, Quadaffi is high on something too. But is it possible that drugs played any role in this Arab “awakening?"

Not really. The uprisings are mainly about overturning corrupt and repressive regimes and about people reclaiming personal dignity and economic opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, to the extent that substance abuse has been more prevalent in Arab countries than elsewhere, drugs and alcohol may be serving as a way of coping with repression, instability, and personal degradation. If the revolutions now underway bring greater openness and opportunity to the populations, hopefully we'll see addiction rates fall.

As far as lighter, recreational consumption of alcohol and other drugs, young people have been struggling against conservative forces to enjoy these pleasures well before the dramatic events of last spring. In Bahrain, for example, I spent some time a few years back with a group called “Lana Haqq,” which means “We have a right.” It’s a coalition of feminists, liberal thinkers, musicians, and other typical victims of Islamists’ restrictive social agenda who have been fighting for freedom of (and from) religion as well as the equality of genders, lifestyles, and every skirt length. They’re vehemently against the campaign to ban alcohol. They play for a laugh sometimes, but they have also been a bulwark against reactionary and chauvinist forces in the kingdom. Now Bahrain is plagued by sectarian violence, and “Lana Haqq,” which brought together liberally-minded Shi’ites and Sunnis, isn’t as active as it was a few years ago. But when the dust settles, I’m sure the bongs will come out again.


Maer Roshan is Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of The Fix.

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Maer Roshan is an American writer, editor and entrepreneur who has launched and edited a series of prominent magazines and websites, including,, NYQ, Punch!, Radar Magazine and You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.